Learning Finnish with Children’s Books

Today on the blog, Paula Holmes tells us about her experience of learning Finnish and how children’s books have supported her learning journey….

By Paula Holmes

Minä olen velho – I am a wizard. Well, not exactly. And I am not the first to comment on this building block of Duolingo Finnish. In the middle of the pandemic, I decided to try to learn Finnish with Duolingo. Why Finnish?  Was it my long-time interest in their educational system? Or their practical baby boxes? No, it was rooted in my frustration of trying to assist my mother with getting her iPad out of the Finnish language setting, something that happened more than once. Language chosen; I was ready to learn. I am someone who goes all in on a project. Finnish candy and coffee ordered, YouTube and Disney+ set to Suomi, and the search for Finnish picture books to practice my newfound skills.

Luckily World Kid Lit is a great resource for Finnish titles. Books from Finland are not only published in Finnish, but also in the the second official language, Swedish, and very occasionally in Sámi. Finding titles in Finnish that would ship to the US was interesting. First, I went through the Finnish Design Shop; not only did I find some beautiful Etana Editions, but I ordered an outdoor chair, too. I had a wonderful conversation with customer service on other titles that are popular with Finnish children, plus a link to the nearby Moomin Land. On Twitter, translator Helen Wang shared the link for Book Depository and now there is nothing stopping my shopping. Sadly, I can’t get everything. I am still unable to locate My Favorite Finnish Things/Aareitani Suomesta by Satu Kettunen translated by Mia Spangenberg. My goal is to one day go to a bookstore in Finland. 

Cover image of My Favorite Finnish Things/Aareitani Suomesta by Satu Kettunen
Cover image of Ruusun Matka/Rosie’s Journey by Marika Maijala published by Etana Editions

On the arrival of my first picture book Ruusun Matka/Rosie’s Journey by Marika Maijala published by Etana Editions, I knew I might be slightly over my head. The expressive and energetic crayon drawings with the powerful use of white space for Rosie moved the story along even when my language skills and computer translations failed. When choosing picture books to practice your skills choose ones where the pictures convey the story to help provide context, and to reinforce and grow your vocabulary. Finnish is a word-building language (my term) with gender neutral pronouns. It is a language where a professional translator will always be preferred to a computer translation. I got so lost in decoding the word sähköjäniksen (electrical hare – the motorized bunny that the greyhounds chase around the track) that I totally lost the thread of the story for a moment. Ruusun Matka/Rosie’s Journey deserves a wider audience; I’m crossing my fingers for an English translation.

Having the book in both Finnish and the English translation can help with sections that are confusing and adds to overall comprehension. Laura Merz and Aino Järvinen’s Tuhat Ja Yksi Otusta/1001 Creatures from Etana Editions and Yonder Book’s English translation by Emily Jeremiah gave me the opportunity to translate short pieces and to review my literal translation with the professional translation. It also highlighted the craft of the translator.

Finland is world renowned for design as evident with the illustrators of the above books. If you are a fan of Marimekko don’t miss the book Oman Maan Mansikat by Aino Maija Metsola that reflects that esthetic. The snails are adorable and the watercolor fruit is gorgeous, but I would probably drown the snails in beer rather than share my garden harvest.

Cover images of English and Finnish editions of  Laura Merz and Aino Järvinen's Tuhat Ja Yksi Otusta/1001 Creatures from Etana Editions and Yonder Book’s English translation by Emily Jeremiah
Cover image of Oman Maan Mansikat by Aino Maija Metsola

After reading Lola Roger’s English translation of graphic novel, Voro/Lily the Thief, by Janne Kukkonen I am eager to try the second in the series in Finnish. I have a firm foundation of the characters and an understanding of Lily’s quest and her ready-fire-aim personality. Word bubbles remove extraneous words and identify who is speaking, and pictures add context. I found the graphic novel format naturally encouraged me to read aloud. As a librarian I am huge fan of graphic novels. I appreciate how they support literacy skills, and I am finding those same principles apply to learning another language. My latest find that I am reading aloud is YA graphic novel Oksi by Mari Ahokoivu. I was fortunate to have received an ARC from US publisher Levine Querido (October 26, 2021) translation into English by Silja-Maaria Aronpuro. Oksi has roots in Finnish myths and folklore and I found myself taking brief detours of research. This is a powerful story that requires time to process all that is happening, even in English.

Duolingo ensured that I have a broad food vocabulary including candy, chocolate, licorice, and salted licorice. This now makes total sense reading Ruth Urbom’s translation of Siri Kolu’s 2010 Finlandia Junior Award, Me Rosvolat/Me and the Robbersons. It is not exactly Nordic Noir, but this middle grade novel of van-driving pirates robbing cars of packed meals, candy and now kidnapping has all the delicious dark humor of one. I totally appreciate Duolingo giving me a cultural understanding of Finnish delicacies.

Cover image of Oksi by Mari Ahokoivu
Cover image of Me Rosvolat/Me and the Robbersons by Siri Kolu, translated by Ruth Urbom

In my rapidly built collection of Finnish titles, most characters present White or are animals. This made Johanna Lestelä’s Tuikku Ja Pimeän Mörkö an important addition in the search for more diverse main characters. Tuikku is a biracial child and the main character in a series of stories. This is familiar story of a child avoiding going to bed because they are afraid of the dark and the monsters that only come out when the lights go off. The story’s pictures support the text and “photos” of the family at the beginning of the book identify the characters. It is unfortunate that although Duolingo covers Vikings and wizards, they do not cover monsters in the bedroom closet, but I muddled through! Johanna Lestelä is an educator and maybe the reason it works well for Finnish language learning. An author worth championing, there are three Tuikku stories published by Otava.

Cover image of Tuikku Ja Pimeän Mörkö by Johanna Lestelä
Cover image of Radio Popvo by Anja Portin

Am I fluent in Finnish? No. Nor do I think I ever will be. But I will campaign for more translations of Finnish Kid Lit, continue to watch TV in Finnish, and answer the phone in Finnish (a new hobby) which confounds scammers. My long-term goal is to read Radio Popvo winner of the 2020 Finlandia Junior Award by Anja Portin. I have the first sentence down!  Minä olen Alfred… dear translators, help, I need you!



More detailed information on artist/illustrator Marika Maijala can be found on World Kid Lit as well as a review on Me Rosvolat/Me and the Robbersons

Scandinavia House has a great video workshop on 1001 Creatures

Siri Kolu discusses Me Rosvolati/Me and the Robbersons along with translation process with Mattie Whitehead on UK publisher Little Tiger Press YouTube Channel


Photo of Paula Holmes

Paula Holmes has served in a variety of volunteer capacities for the Association for Library Service to Children (a division of the American Library Association) including Fiscal Officer and is currently the Committee Chair for ALSC 2022 Nominating and Leadership Development.  She is currently taking ballet to improve her interpretative dancing, creating tiny collage art, reading translations of children’s literature, and attempting to learn Finnish.